Thursday, August 15, 2013

Social Ecology: Because We Are Nature

I'm  not sure where I first heard this story. I'm sure it was in Alaska, and its beginning was told me by a Native during the course of opening to me the Native Mind. The ending of the story was added by me, also a storyteller, and I can think of no better fable to show the difference between the way I was taught to view reality and the way my Alaskan friend was taught.

The story begins with a scientifically proven fact: at the end of the Pleistocene, about 10,000 years ago, there was a mass extinction of large animals across Eurasia and North America. No one was there to witness this event; most people attribute it to overhunting, and author Barry Lopez in his precise and pointed manner observes that outside the African continent, there was almost no co-evolution between humans and large mammals. Co-evolution describes a relationship between predators and their prey. Prey species adapt in ways to better avoid those who hunt them, forcing predators to hone their hunting skills and resulting in stronger species overall.

There is no question that during the Pleistocene, humans honed their hunting skills, napping flint arrow and spear heads and mastering the art of fire which permitted cooking what they had caught. In North America, so goes the Native account, the animals did not know us when we crossed the bridge into the new land, and because they did not know us, it made it possible for us to hunt them out of existence. When we saw what we had done, we were very sad and we were very hungry, so we came together to learn how we could live better with the animals and the land. Out of this was born our Native Way. We did not always have this way. We had to learn from our mistakes.

Presumably, the same thing was going on in Eurasia. All the animals whose memory haunts us from caves in El Castillo, Chauvet, Lascaux also went extinct. This might be one of the things indirectly alluded to in the myth of the expulsion from the Garden, although the Bible makes no reference to humans' eating meet until after the Flood, and the Flood is about saving animals, not losing them. The mythological evidence from Europe is spotty. But what we can document, from around that time, is the rise of a culture of control: agriculture, domestic animals, walled cities, armies, hierarchies; in short, the mechanisms of order, and the distancing of the human person from the world that nourishes and sustains him. With the beautiful exception of the Egyptians -- and remember that the Egyptians were Africans and so enjoyed co-evolution -- animal people are surprisingly absent from the Greek and Near Eastern pantheons, appearing mostly in monstrous form.

Ecological philosopher Paul Shepard believes that something so profound happened about 10,000 years ago that we are only just beginning to appreciate its consequences. His beautiful study Nature and Madness details the loss of adulthood that accompanies civilization. In the more technical societies, humans enjoy very long childhoods and lack any kind of initiation into real maturity. The result is that in the most so-called "advanced" technical societies, even the elders are just decaying young people. One of his other books, collected from posthumous writings, describes the Pleistocene, being the age in which humans rose to high levels of consciousness, was also the age to whose ecosystems we were the most perfectly adapted, and all that has followed has been in some way a mismatch, with all the distortions to reality implied when our instincts are not in tune with our surroundings. In such a view, although Shepard does not go this far, cities become a way of tailoring the environment to purely human sensibilities. More about this later.

In his whimsical book about a philosophical gorilla named Ishmael, novelist Daniel Quinn refers to two basic cultural stances in the world: the leavers and the takers.

To be continued...

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